According to Mars, he came up with the hook to the pop-rap hit last year while walking around London and slowly realizing just how broke he actually was.
“Me and [production partner] Ari Levine went out to London to work on producing and writing for an artist. We had per diems, so they gave us £250 [a few hundred dollars] each to live off of for 11 days,” Mars says. “And everything there was so expensive. We were like, ‘Is this the biggest mistake we’ve ever made? We thought we were broke in California; what are we going to do here?’ So we’ve got no money, and I’m walking the streets and came up with, ‘I wanna be a billionaire, so frickin’ bad.’ ”
Mars might have been strapped for cash, but the 24-year-old Hawaii native was already impacting pop radio as a member of production team the Smeezingtons before the “Billionaire” refrain popped into his head. Mars’ featured vocals on the song’s chorus, as well as on B.o.B‘s Billboard Hot 100-topping “Nothin’ on You,” were preceded by a songwriting credit on Flo Rida‘s “Right Round” and production work on K’naan‘s “Wavin’ Flag,” which became the 2010 World Cup’s official anthem.
Yet for Mars (real name: Peter Hernandez), it’s never been about producing other people. Although he was hawking his Smeezingtons material to pay his bills, Mars’ focus remained on his solo career.
On the eve of the Oct. 5 release of Mars’ stylish debut album, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” Elektra co-president John Janick thinks that the success of “Nothin’ on You” and “Billionaire,” as well as the steady growth of the disc’s retro-romantic first single, “Just the Way You Are,” have set up Mars as a multifaceted flagship artist for the recently revived label.
GRABBING THE MIC
The Smeezingtons penned and produced songs by Brandy and Matisyahu, but working with Canadian hip-hop artist K’naan in 2008 “established what we do with live instrumentation and programmed drums, but with a classic, vintage feel,” Mars says. A writing credit on “Right Round” in early 2009 gained the attention of Atlantic A&R director Aaron Bay-Schuck, who helped Mars and Lawrence land a meeting with Elektra co-presidents Janick and Mike Caren last fall.
Mars played five songs in the meeting, including the choruses of “Nothin’ on You” and “Billionaire,” and Janick was instantly sold. “Every song sounded like a smash,” Janick recalls. “As soon as they walked out of the meeting, I said, ‘We have to sign these guys.’ “
As the Smeezingtons were finding steady work, the group unwittingly turned its writing and production work on “Nothin’ on You” and “Billionaire” into avenues for Mars’ solo career. Rapper B.o.B and Gym Class Heroes frontman McCoy were presented the songs with no intention of Mars singing on the finished product, but the charisma he added to the hooks was undeniable.
“The first time I heard that dude belt, it was like people hearing Michael Jackson for the first time,” says McCoy, who was working on his debut album with the Smeezingtons in Miami when Mars sang him the “Billionaire” hook. “There was one other prospect for the hook but . . . after he went in and laid down the final vocals it was a no-brainer. We had to keep him on the record.”
“Nothin’ on You” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last April, while “Billionaire” peaked at No. 4; the tracks have sold nearly 5 million copies combined, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Elektra met the sudden arrival of Mars-the-frontman with a patient deployment plan, first issuing his digital-only debut EP, “It’s Better If You Don’t Understand,” last May. As Mars worked on his first full-length, Elektra began branding the singer with merchandise, a new website and behind-the-scenes footage for future deluxe DVD releases, according to marketing rep Katie Robinson.
With its heart-on-sleeve lyrics and towering chorus, Mars’ first solo single, “Just the Way You Are,” was a sentimental departure from “Nothin’ on You” and “Billionaire” but has sold 1.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The rest of “Doo-Wops” showcases Mars’ velvety vocals while never touching the same genre twice: “Runaway Baby” slithers like abandon-free surf rock, while possible second single “Grenades” has a darker urgency unheard in Mars’ previous output.
On Sept. 19, Mars was arrested in Las Vegas on suspicion of cocaine possession following a performance at the Hard Rock Hotel Casino the previous night. The singer isn’t commenting on the arrest, but the drug charge didn’t slow his momentum on the charts, as “Just the Way You Are” gave Mars his first solo No. 1 on the Hot 100 four days after the news broke.
The chart-topping single should help “Doo-Wops & Hooligans” make a splash at big-box retailers upon its release, with Target carrying a deluxe edition with two bonus tracks and a 30-minute DVD. Meanwhile, Mars will record a “Soundcheck” for Walmart, and a trek opening for Maroon 5 will be followed by a European run in October with McCoy, who says the tour may feature “merged sets . . . a little bit like a variety show.”
As Mars prepares for his first headlining tour in November, the singer’s solo ascendance may signal the too-soon end of another rising pop force: the Smeezingtons. The production team continues to knock out hits like “Nothin’ on You,” “Wavin’ Flag” and, most recently, Cee Lo‘s “Fuck You,” which earned 3 million YouTube hits in its first week. With Mars expected to heavily tour “Doo-Wops,” he says that the Smeezingtons are “definitely going to be taking a break from the producer stuff once the solo stuff comes out.”
Even if the Smeezingtons’ output slows to a halt, Mars’ live show may be worth the trio’s diverted attention. The singer earned rave reviews for his New York solo debut on Aug. 27, in which he and his band rocked a sold-out Bowery Ballroom in matching blue suits. For someone who grew up on the stage, unveiling his songs live is more important than hiding in a studio.
“This has been all of our dreams: me, Phil and Ari,” Mars says. “Let’s work on songs that we strongly believe in, get them out there and perform them right.”